I chafe when the label “conservative” is applied to me.
I am not embarrassed to be called a conservative or associated with its ideas. Rather, I think it reduces who I am to a political category and fails to account for what I consider to be much more fundamental to who I am – indeed for what I think is the fundamental fact that defines me, my Catholicism. Catholicism lived rightly transcends and explodes political categories and causes my political commitments to be in tension with my deeper Catholic mode of seeing the world.
What are my starting points then, if not conservative principles? That each of us is loved into being and sustained by love. That we are not random bits of organic material who happen to be here by mere chance. That we are created in the image and likeness of God, and that God entered into history in a specific human person, Jesus Christ. And it is Christ, as the Second Vatican Council taught, who “fully reveals man to man himself” and teaches that man “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”
Men and women are made to give themselves to others and have an inestimable God-given dignity. Additionally, people are made to be in relationship, indeed, are constituted by relationships: to God, to family, to society, to friends, to Creation, etc. Each person is born into a family and into a web of relationships. Each person is given his or her being by God and is fostered and cared for within the context of a family and community. As my friend David Schindler has argued “there is no community anywhere in the creaturely universe that is purely, or first, voluntary in character, because relation to all creatures is already given in the act of creation.” Schindler's point is that each person is constituted by this web of relationships. There is no abstraction known as the individual.
This has obvious implications for how I view politics and society. There is no state of nature where we exist separate from each other. The Lockean principles at the root of America’s founding are decidedly incompatible with a proper understanding of the human person. Politics then is not a zero-sum game by which I try to maximize my rights at the expense of others, or by which I try to minimize negative drags on my freedom. Nor is government merely a necessary evil – something we have to put up with – but, a necessary coordinating institution that is a function of our social nature.
The principle that each person is made in the image and likeness of God also has necessary implications for how we should view our care for the voiceless – the poor, the unborn, the elderly, the immigrant, the disabled. I find resonance with Hubert Humphrey's line that "the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”
The Catholic church's great social teaching also challenges me in many ways that don't fit neatly into a conservative ideology. That teaching requires that I view labor unions as a right and a good, basic health care as a right and a responsibility we owe to our citizens, and that I hold that men and women are entitled to a just wage. (To what extent government or other institutions should bear responsibility for these rights is a more difficult question requiring prudence and great care.)
You may be seeing a theme here. The Catholic vision of life permeates everything. Thus, it shapes the way I view sexuality – as a great gift from God but also with certain boundaries and limits – but also the way I view how we should build our towns and cities and care for the environment, raise our animals, cultivate our food. The Catholic principle of subsidiarity – mentioned earlier – causes me to be distrustful of big government – where it isn’t warranted – but also of big corporations.
None of this fits into our neat political categories. And it leads to quite a bit of misunderstanding from those on the outside. When I lived in D.C., certain positions I took – including my opposition to the Iraq war – made people think I'd become a Beltway liberal. Others cause people to think of me as a Neanderthal. What I am, at the very least, is an uncomfortable conservative and, increasingly, I find myself rejecting the label altogether, not because being a conservative is a bad thing or that I disagree with many conservative positions but because in the end I'm Catholic. And Catholicism, despite what its many detractors say and too many of its adherents demonstrate, is not an ideology, but a way of seeing the world, of living all reality that transcends our narrow political categories.